Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Easter: the Victory of Faith

For whatever is born of God conquers the world.  And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith! 1 John 5:4 

The Devil the World and Eroded Trust


If I would only look at the news,  I  would conclude simply that we live in a skeptical age. Seeing is believing we say, and even if we do see it, someone will question what it is we actually saw.   In our world today truth is said to be all in the numbers: poll numbers in politics, balance sheets in businesses (and yes sadly churches!) SAT or PARC scores in our schools.  Yet others will heap doubt upon those very numbers challenging that they don't really represent anything at all. 

Different camps will have different truths.  The savvy manipulator can go shopping for facts.  Institutions no longer have the credibility to mediate differing ideas and form consensus. The pressures of our current times have led us to doubt many things, if not most things.  If one goes with the flow of our culture there is little hope left in our world today.  Everything has an explanation, nothing is good or bad.  All is relative. Value neutral judgments rule from classroom to boardroom.  Unlike our ancestors who formed common ideas of virtue and vice, all has become utilitarian.   The left, right and center groups of culture are no different from each other in this regard.   All morality has devolved into self justification.   We are reliving the fall of Adam and Eve over and over again.  The serpents skeptical push rings in our ears, TV sets, and social media feeds.  If all become nihilists, the devil wins. 

The Real Alternative: Faith 


How different this is from what we are called to be by God in the witness of the Bible and through the moving of the Holy Spirit. We are reborn to be set apart from the wider world. It is not only OK to be different it is necessary.

Christians are called to be optimistic and hold certain virtues dearly.  Life matters from womb to tomb.  Each life has dignity,  We pay special attention to the lives of those beaten down by the world, and yes, even our enemies.  We are called to witness our faith in Christ, which as Christ modeled to us himself, means listening as much as speaking.  We hold that all are created good, even in the face of evil.

Our optimism is not the pie in the sky variety held used by marketers and prosperity preachers to get us to open our wallets or click the "buy it now" button.  It is the steadfast variety confirmed by scripture and witness, that the God who rescued Israel sent Jesus to redeem our world.  Our worldview starts with the premise that Christ and the good will ultimately triumph.  Indeed some will call us naive, but better to be pure of heart in the service of virtue and building things that last, than wise or worldly to merely satisfy our transient lusts.  When your life on earth is done, what side do you want to be on?  We indeed like Christ, may be called to pay a price, but that price will always be worth paying. The struggle may be long, arduous, and not all sugar coated, but the outcome is sure. Life will win! 

Easter Victory! 


How can we have the confidence to be optimistic in world so full or strife? Simple, listen to the Word of God that has upheld the faithful since Abraham.  In short, it says that God acts for good in our world at all times.  For us who follow Christ it specifically means that God sent his son born into this world just like we were so that we might be redeemed.  This redemption was done for us by Christ's sacrifice on the cross.  Three days after Jesus was put to death, he rose from the dead, destroying our last enemy and binding Satan underfoot.  This witness has been seen and handed down through the generations of the faithful.  Billions have experienced this truth in their lives and shared it with others. 

For us Christians, the watchword is faith,  the trust that God’s promises are actually for us.  This is grounded in the hope of resurrection. Our trust in Christ leads us to view our world differently than those who are skeptical or nihilistic.  For the faithful, the world is full of hope, as we see God working in all situations.  It is full of wonder, when the unexpected good comes along. It is realistic in the midst of crisis, but active in the midst of need.  It is humble when examining the potential of ourselves, but expectant when seeing God at work in the lives of others.  Our faith values love, justice and the intrinsic value of all life because we know that the only source of good is the God of life.  This we remember every Easter when we contemplate the empty tomb.

No, we have not conquered the old skeptical Adam within ourselves just yet, but by clinging to Christ we will not let the darker side of ourselves have supremacy.  So as Christians, we hold fast to our faith and the promise delivered at Easter.  May God strengthen your faith that you may always believe and have life in Christ's name. For he is risen indeed!

Blessed Easter 
Pastor Knecht 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Jersey Samaritan

One night after a long day at work, a lawyer in his mid 50's from Glen Ridge who has just seen the last of his three children go off to college, sits under a chandelier of an empty dining room table to contemplate where his life is going.   His divorce was finalized a few years ago, and his ex-wife now lives in San Diego.  He mulls over calling her but thinks better of it. 

He wonders if he should call the psychologist whom he has been seeing since the divorce, but he finds talking to him seems too much like staring a mirror for an hour with a hangover; it is painful, dreary, and most of all draining.  He then decides to call his eldest child, but she is in night class at law school and can't talk.  His youngest has enough problems of his own adjusting to college life, so talking to him would be all about helping him, and he was way too weak to do that now.  So he takes the cap off the bottle of Glenmorangie he got for Christmas and refills his his heavy tumbler two thirds of the way up the side of the glass and meditates if he should call his middle son. 

Their second child and first boy was a middle kid from the get go.   Having spent more time in the vice principal's office than in class, it was some sort of cosmic joke that this was the one who got religion.  He and his former wife did what his parents did; they had the kids baptized.  They went to church if there was no soccer game for the kids, or anything else fun to do on a Sunday,  More likely to attend Christmas than Easter, they did  have all three kids confirmed to please his in-laws.   His middle guy had fallen in with a campus ministry at school in Illinois, went on a mission trip to Ecuador, met a girl whom he just proposed to, and talks about working for Doctors Without Borders when he finishes med school. The lawyer thinks this is all a bit sketchy,  and that his son is naive. He is sure he will come around once life kicks him around a bit, but hey, at least he believes in something.

He presses the contact link in his I-Phone and his son picks up, "hey dad" he hears on the line.   "How ya doin" the man asks.  "OK, what's up" the son responds.  "What's it all about, son?"  "What?" says the son.  "This faith business you go on and on about."

"Well" the son says with a drawn out pause. "It's simple to think about but most times hard to do.  You're not religious, but you've been to church enough to get the message, Do you remember what the pastors would talk about in the sermons."   "Being a good person" said the father.  "Not really" the son answers,  "perhaps being a bit more specific might help"  "If I wanted therapy I'd see my shrink son!"   "Not gonna waste my time trying to fix you dad! But this is not rocket science, you know the answer"   "Love you neighbor as yourself" says the father.   "Just add God to the mix and you got it dad."   "Well how do you do it son?"  "Let me tell you a story" he replies.

"Suppose one evening a guy from our neighborhood takes his Range Rover and drives southeast on Bloomfield Avenue towards Newark to see a Devil's game.   As he pulls up to a traffic light.  A 20 year old Honda Civic stops suddenly in front of him without break lights and the guy runs into the back of it.  The man steps out of the Range Rover to inspect the damage.  Out of the Honda come three guys with baseball bats.   They beat the man senseless, take his watch, wallet and keys.  One jumps back into to the Honda and the other two drive off in the Range Rover for a joy ride. He is left alone bloody and broken on the street within an inch of his life"

"Across the intersection in a Toyota Camry sits a man in clerical color,  he's on his way to meet with a church about becoming their pastor.  Shocked, he assumes someone has a cell phone and will report it.  He can't be late; he knows that if he lands this position he will be able to help people. So he drives off.   Right after him a deaconess from a Pentecostal church drives by in a Dodge Caravan on her way to pick up a widow to take her to Bible Study.  Disturbed and scared at the sight of the man in the road she too drives by.  Thinking she is a woman alone and that someone must have reported it by now, she remembers to jot it down in prayer journal as she pulls up to the widow's house in Montclair.  As the light changes again, a 20 something black man in a hoodie runs across four lanes of traffic as he dials 911 and tells the operator about the man on the side of the road.  Swallowing his fear that the police will mistake him for one of the suspects he waits until help arrives."

"The police arrive. followed an ambulance. They perform first aid while carefully loading the man onto a backboard and stretcher to take the man to whatever they call UMDMJ Hospital these days.  The guy in the hoodie knows someone from his church who works in the hospital and asks about the John Doe. He convinces her to look the other way with HIPA and he recruits his church friends to sit vigil with the man until he regains consciousness.  After he starts to recover, the church helps him back into his house in Glen Ridge and makes sure he has food to eat and company in his recovery."

The son asked his father, "which person in the story loved God and his neighbor?" "The kid in the hoodie" says the dad.  The son, whose voice is breaking because he is overcome with love for his dad says "I know you're cynical old guy with a receding hair line and beer gut, but you will never find peace until you are more like the guy with hoodie.  This is really Jesus' story, and it's the only time in the bible he says 'go and do likewise' so you need to be that guy."

My rewrite of Luke 10:25-37 takes place in towns that I am familiar with but don't know anybody who lives in them.  As a white male in my mid 50's I chose the protagonists for obvious reasons.  You may criticize me for these choices, but I would encourage you to ask the question "who is my Samaritan?"  That is, the person who society is conditioning you to reflexively fear.  Until we understand our common humanity and our God given call to care for each other there will be no peace.  

Be blessed 
Pastor Knecht  


Friday, January 19, 2018

The Case for Sin


Sometimes the answer to our questions is just staring us in the face and we are unable to see it.  I think this is the case today in our society, church, culture and even personal relationships.  We are neglecting a central part of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the idea that we need to be forgiven in order to be free to live as God intended. 

What is distressing to me as one who has dedicated a life to the mission of the Gospel is how few Christians talk about sin anymore.   Some Christians teach a lot about being born again, but I am not hearing that one needs to come to grips with his or her sin first.  Other Christians teach a lot about inclusion, but I don't see much introspection about how our own sinfulness may be what  is dividing our communities.  Lot's of people are going to mega churches and following TV preachers to "find their best life now" or to get a "special blessing" and will sign up for seminars, buy books, and contribute money without doing the one thing that is actually necessary to actually turn their life around.  Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Psalms 32:5 (NRSV) 

Perhaps most distressingly, many of the right wingers and left wingers who are manning the barricades of the culture wars to right the wrongs of society are utterly blind to the fact that it is most often our own sin which obstructs us from building a more blessed and beloved community.  It is not the sins of those whom we dislike that we need to deal with first, it is the sins committed by ourselves.

Don't get me wrong people believe in sin, it just that we like to look for it in others, not ourselves.  This is the ultimate spiritual struggle and we are called to enter the fray.   For until we experience forgiveness we will not be free and we will not be healed.  Our created purpose is to be people at peace with God and the world and that can not occur until we are relieved of the burden of sin which weighs so closely.

The simple fact of the matter is that we cannot understand the true power of the Gospel unless we start to grasp what Christ has freed us from.  Lutherans traditionally have always talked about the big three, sin, death and the devil.  Notice which one is first.  Sin leads to death and it leads us to open the door to evil in our lives.  Confession and forgiveness is basically preventive medicine to help us be whole. 

This leads us to be forgiving of others, because when we begin to understand that we are not perfect we can better appreciate that our neighbors, co-workers, classmates and family members are not perfect either.   Two key outreach actions of the church in wider society are dependent on a healthy appreciation of our own sinfulness, evangelism and advocacy for the marginalized.  In order to effectively reach out in both ways we have to appreciate our own  history of sin, forgiveness, and new life, as well as our dependence on God to guide us when we do not know the way.

What we can never do is engage this process of confession and forgiveness with an attitude of complacency that we have somehow finished the job.  The world is still waiting for redemption as are we.  So we must daily go once more into the breach, confess our sin, and need for God's help and to hear the word of promise that we are forgiven through the person and work of Jesus Christ.

I understand our reluctance to talk about sin openly; it is certainly easier in the short run to avoid seeing that negative aspects of our lives.  Some  churches today don't really want to make people feel guilty by pointing out that its members are not perfect, so they avoid the topic.   However, the Word is clear While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. Psalms 32:3 (NRSV)

Guilt doesn't come from talking about sin; it comes from unresolved sin.   The church that refuses to talk about sin is doomed experience it in soul crushing ways.  When I fist figured out that God loved me even though I have done things that I should not have, I felt peace.   I would never have experienced true peace for even a brief second if I had not talked to God about the truth of who I am.   So I am making the case that we talk about sin, most importantly our own, so we can know the power of Christ who has forgiven us.  So give me that old-time religion where sinners are forgiven and loved by a gracious God.

Be blessed

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Bible Challenge


I challenge you to read the Bible in 2018. Not parts of the Bible, the whole thing. “We must learn to know the Scriptures once again… as our fathers knew them. We must not grudge the time and work it takes. We must know the Scriptures first and foremost for the sake of our salvation. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together)

To be a Christian is to be a person of the Word of God. We were called into a relationship with God through the Word. As we say in the Lutheran Church, it is the source and norm of our faith. It is the place we go to find out about how we should deal with the central issues of life. Contemporary culture may not hold the Bible in high esteem, but that is to its detriment; it need not be ours. We have the gifts of God given to us through the Word, we must not throw them away, or relegate them to dust covered bookshelves in the spare bedrooms of our lives. Our life and our salvation is the most precious gift we have, therefore the Word should have pride of place.

Yes, the Whole Enchilada!

While every person of faith has parts of the Bible they like better than others, it is important to read the whole story so that we may know the strengths and weaknesses of our faith. We can at times place ourselves in a spiritual feedback loop, which constantly confirms long held beliefs without question or introspection. This happens often with devotionals that only use individual verses, or churches that only follow a lectionary with narrow range of the wider body of Scripture. Focusing on pieces of Scripture to the exclusion of the whole story of salvation can stunt the growth of a faith life or leave one ill equipped when life brings new challenges. Holy Scripture does not consist of individual passages; it is a unit and it is intended to be used as such (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together)

Christians are People of the Book


To be a Christian is to be in relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We cannot do that without the reading of Scripture. “Consecutive reading of biblical books forces everyone… to put (oneself)… where God has acted once and for all for the salvation of (people).” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together) In other words, God’s story becomes our story, and yes vice versa our lives become part of God’s story too. Regular Bible reading changes who we are and that can be a blessing to others and even the entire world.

As one who reads history often I can tell you that so many of the blessings that we have today were inspired by those who steeped their entire lives in the biblical story. From things such as the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, child labor laws, to the freedom of individual conscience, the story of God’s salvation inspired those who fought for these things. “The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.” (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451) I challenge you to be a Bible person (not a thumper) one who lets God’s story breathe through their life. As you will read in the Gospels, Jesus lived in exactly this way; just look at how many times he quotes the Hebrew Scriptures.

How to Start

If you have not read the Bible regularly before, I encourage you to begin by reading 1-2 chapters continuously of the New Testament daily beginning with Mathew’s Gospel and ending with Revelation. By doing this, you will complete the New Testament in well under a year. As Christians, we read the rest of the Bible through the eyes of Christ, so this is the best place to start.

If you have some experience with the Bible, perhaps a chapter of the Old Testament read continuously, with a Psalm, and when you finished them, a chapter from Proverbs, followed by a chapter of the New Testament. You will not finish the Bible in a year, but will have read the majority of it.

To complete the Bible in a year you can google a plan, there are many available, or you might read 5-6 chapters of Scripture a day. It is important not to get bogged down when you get to those sections of Scripture that can seem monotonous, such as descriptions of the temple furnishings, genealogies, or obscure parts of the Torah. It is important therefore to have a mix of Old Testament and New Testament readings. It is also OK to skim these parts, as long as you aware of what you are leaving out. The goal is the familiarity with the big story of the Bible. I hope that this can be blessing for you in 2018 and you too can let the story of God breathe through your life.

Be blessed
Pastor Knecht

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Pastor Knecht's Christmas Letter to the Congregation

December 2017

The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. John 1:14 NRSV

Dear Family and Friends of Holy Cross,

It is my great pleasure to wish you a merry Christmas and a blessed New Year.   I pray that you may know the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ as we rejoice in the message of his coming.

The verse quoted above is a traditional reading for Christmas day.  The Gospel of John has a very different Christmas story than we are used to.   The true meaning of Christmas is shared in a very direct way. His account begins at the start of creation and shows how God was working to save the world from the beginning of time.   Jesus is the light coming into our dark world.   He is the redeemer sent to bring home those who are in darkness.  He is our Savior, the true light, which comes into the world for all people.

This year many will find our world to be a dark place. Our comminutes have become divided over politics and culture.   Many may feel threatened or that their way of life is in jeopardy.   Now more than ever people need to know about Jesus who by his coming death and resurrection overcomes the divisions of our world.  They need to know that God dwelled among us and knows what we are going through.  Most of all, people need to know that Jesus has given people who have faith in him the gift of eternal life so that they are not held captive to fear, but free to live in hope.

We invite you to join us at Holy Cross this year as we celebrate of the coming of God’s Son.  Our Christmas Eve schedule is as follows.

Sunday December 24th       10AM Sunday School Christmas Pageant
                                            11AM  Live Animal Nativity and Fellowship
                                            5PM Christmas Eve Candlelight Communion

I wish you and yours all God’s blessings this Christmas,


Pastor Knecht 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Showing up for Christmas


But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. (Galatians 4:4-5 NRSV)

Incarnation

The saying goes, ninety percent of life is just showing up.   Indeed, showing up is a good way to explain what God has done in the story of the coming of Jesus Christ. God showed up to be with us in our world.  Jesus would be called Immanuel, Hebrew for the "with us" God. 

One simple thing that I have  through life learned is that people show up because they care. Some of the most powerful moments I have seen are when someone shows up to something important to me when I did not expect that person to be there. Likewise, some of life's greatest disappointments are when someone I counted on to be there for me failed to arrive. To show up or not, is a vote about whether we care or not. 

The people who really care are those who have the love to show up not only when they approve of things, or are comfortable, but those who show up when they are disappointed or know that arriving will bring mixed feelings.  This is the kind of showing up modeled in the coming of Jesus Christ through the miracle of the incarnation. This kind of showing up has a word to describe it, forgiveness.

Compassion

What compels someone to show up in situations that are not easy, or even dangerous? How can we forgive those who have hurt us? The Gospel clearly shows that the motivation of this kind of thing is always love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." (John 3:16-17 NRSV) Love is that which bridges the gap caused by sin in our relationships with God and others.

I am asking you to consider remembering those who showed up in your life when times were bad, and especially those who showed up after your actions had hurt them. These are those that love you.  These are those who have compassion for you. Compassion in popular parlance is synonymous with empathy.  In theological terms, compassion is much more; it sticks to its root meaning in Latin, to suffer with.  To forgive means to accept suffering for love, the person offering forgiveness always suffers a bit to extend it.  So yes, forgiveness hurts. The bible reminds us there is no forgiveness without some sacrifice. "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins" (Hebrews 9:22 NRSV)

The word compassion is a great shorthand Gospel summary.  God has empathy and decides to come and show up to be with us in our time of need.  Even though our need has been created by our own failures, mistakes, and lashing out, God still shows up. This is love. This is the meaning behind the hope of Advent and the promise of Christmas.

Be blessed
Pastor Knecht


Friday, November 3, 2017

The Rule of Grace

Where Do You See God's Grace? 

This entire year throughout the world people have remembered, celebrated, and discussed the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.   The central tenet of the movement was a renewed understanding of God's saving grace.  Simply put, God acts first to bring us to him.  We don't act first to approach God.   This truth is revealed in the letter of Paul to the Ephesians "he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth." (Ephesians 1:9-11 NRSV) The reformers asked the tough question; are our church's practices consistent with the person and work of Jesus Christ.   This is the critical question for our time today.   Are our actions reflecting the love shown to us in the life, death, resurrection and love of Jesus Christ.

A couple of key points to remember are:

1. God decided to love us by sending Christ, we had no choice in the matter. 

2.  Christ did the work of cross and resurrection without our help.

3.  God asks us to be gracious to others in the same way God has been gracious to us.

These points are summed up in Ephesians 2:8-10 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.... For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, (NRSV)  

The Rule of Grace 

Intentional Christian communities often live by a rule.  The most well known being the Rule of St. Benedict.  The monastic rule is less a series of commands than a formula.   It is a way of going through the day in which one encounters God.  Time is measured through prayer and worship.  The time is allotted for meaningful work, meditation, tending relationships and rest.   It is through following this rule that communities hope to walk with God and be a blessing to their neighbors.  Like one would expect living in a mixed up world with mixed up people, sometimes this worked and sometimes it did not.   The times it did work was when the communities were guided by the higher rule (or as Paul would say the more excellent way).  This higher rule is one that binds all Christians.  We are to follow the Rule of Grace; we are to be a gift for the world, giving gifts to the world.

Using the above definition of the Rule of Grace, I would like you to think about applying it in three ways.   First, as challenge or command to be a person who is gracious in his or her dealings.   We are called to be people who understand that God's grace is not limited to spiritual things.  The material blessings we have, home, food, leisure, job, community and the natural beauty of this world are all evidence of a gracious God's provision.

Second, that we use the Rule of Grace as formula to guide how we should look at things, solve problems and contribute to the life of our community, country, and world.  When dealing with an issue we ask how does this stand in the light of God's grace.

Finally, we let the Rule of Grace rule our hearts and minds.  We approach God in prayer and understand that though we may try to earn, build or work grace, that is not what gives us dignity and salvation.  That has been already given by God through the person and work of Jesus Christ.   Being people of grace we humbly understand that it is our Lord who ultimately in control.  We are therefore freed from fear of sin, death, and rejection, because we know that God is good and God loves us. 

The World Needs People of Grace 

One things that seems to unite all sides in the debates raging in society today is a lack of graciousness. Partisans from all political, social and religious groups  have decided that demonization and judgement of their opponents (or convenient targets) is the only way to achieve goals.   Our Lord did not act like this, God gave grace precisely when it was not deserved or earned.  This changed the world.   Being people of grace is good news not just for us alone but for those who interact with us on a daily basis.  This is not just about us.  Grace is God's gift to the world.   So I am asking you to live by the Rule of Grace and let grace rule your life.

Be blessed
Pastor Knecht